Sunday, January 31, 2016

Toynbee and the Ecological Hypothesis

Read part one.

Read part two.

Colinvaux tells us that Arnold Toynbee's monumental work, A Study of History, takes up over a foot of space on his bookshelf. He sees the same fundamental patterns at work in Toynbee's analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations as in he does in his own ecological hypothesis. In this entry, I will enlist the help of this brief summary of Toynbee's encyclopedic work: Arnold Toynbee on Civilizations and Religions

In A Study of History, Toynbee charts the rise and fall of twenty-one distinct cultures he identifies*.  He distinguishes these civilizations based on their unique cultural, religious, spiritual, and artistic outlooks, and their economic, social, and political organizations. Toynbee attempts to identify a common pattern in the rise and fall of each of these civilizations.

He sees a harsh and unforgiving environment as the required crucible which presents certain challenges to a group of people. If these challenges are difficult enough, but not so harsh that they overwhelm a culture in its infancy, it forges a distinctive cultural "spirit" in that group of people. A society which overcomes the challenges presented to it formulates a distinctive mode of life:
A society, according to Toynbee, develops into a civilization when it is confronted with a challenge which it successfully meets in such a way as to lead it on to further challenges. The challenge may be a difficult climate, a new land, or a military confrontation (even being conquered). The challenge must not be so difficult as to be insurmountable or even so difficult that the society does not have sufficient human resources and energy to take on new challenges.
Rubbish, says Colinvaux; a better explanation is the ecological hypothesis.  A harsh and unforgiving environment doesn't make the "spirit" of a people stronger, it just means they run into ecological limits sooner due to population pressure. This pressure leads them to prey upon their immediate, weaker neighbors who have less dense populations, developing superior military techniques and discipline along the way. The harsh environment forces the people to be adaptable and hardy, and enforces internal social cohesion. The winners of these Darwinian conflicts inevitably expand, assimilating their neighbors through trade, conquest and colonization, exactly as Toynbee describes:
Civilizations arise in marginal lands; Toynbee says that people need the spiritual shock of a hard environment to give of their best. An ecologist is not surprised to learn that marginal lands foster aggressive civilizations, though less impressed by Toynbee's belief that the arousing of the spirit is what counts. It is in marginal lands that the pressure of rising numbers will be felt first, forcing expansionist zeal, the limits are reached sooner in marginal lands, habits must be changed sooner if want is to be avoided, and aggressive armies become an earlier requirement. Once the armies are made, the people of a marginal land only need a victim for their aggression, and a plump victim is always by definition waiting next door. (p. 98)
Toynbee describes a creative minority at the upper echelons of society whose activities and thought patterns animate the actions of the broad mass of people below them. The responses of the creative minority to challenges presented become worthy of emulation by the majority, and the society expands under the leadership of this creative minority:
Toynbee believes that the ideas and methods for meeting the challenges for a society come from a creative minority. The ideas and methods developed by the creative minority are copied by the majority. Thus there are two essential and separate steps in meeting a challenge: the generation of ideas and the imitation/adoption of those ideas by the majority. If either of those two processes ceases to function then the civilization breaks down.
Colinvaux would see such people as occupying the broad niches of a new society early on when the niches are relatively empty. According to Toynbee, this creative minority eventually hardens into a dominant minority who become ever more repressive over time. Colinvaux would say that it is when the niches at the top of society become filled that the creative minority ossifies into a "dominant minority, steadily becoming more oppressive over time due to increasing competition for niche space.

Toynbee claims that it is at this point that societies coalesce into what he describes as the dominant minority, an internal proletariat of citizens outside the ranks of the dominant minority but nevertheless members of that culture, and an external proletariat of people on the fringes of the society under its influence, but still distinct and separate from it.

The internal proletariat becomes ever more restless as opportunities dry up, and conflict ensues between the dominant majority and the internal proletariat as the former become more insular, repressive, and inward-looking. At this point, a society becomes increasingly destabilized, not from below, but from the ranks of the internal proletariat as the overproduction of elite aspirants necessarily means that upward mobility is limited. This leads a society-wide loss of faith in elites and social institutions, leading to what Toynbee terms a time of troubles:
If the creative minority fails to command the respect of the majority through the brilliance and rightness of their solutions to the problems and challenges of the society then the minority becomes merely a dominant minority. In the breakdown of a civilization the society splits into three parts: the dominant minority, the internal proletariat (the working masses which are part of the civilization) and the external proletariat (the masses which are influenced by the civilization but are not controlled by it.
Colinvaux would see this as the effects of crowding on the living standards of the upper classes of society, since they use the resources that the majority desires. As he describes, the people occupying the broad niches are the first to feel the effects of rising numbers, and they will become steadily more oppressive over time while establishing caste systems to assign people to the available narrow niches. The establishment of some sort of caste system leads to conflict between the frustrated, upwardly-mobile middle classes and the top--the dominant majority and the internal proletariat:
From then on, Toynbee's reconstruction is as predicted by the ecological hypothesis. There is, for a time, a "creative minority" of people whose example is willingly followed by the mass, but the "creative minority slowly changes to a repressive "dominant minority. The mass no longer emulates, becoming instead a sullen "internal proletariat." (pp. 98-99)
As Colinvaux describes, people will be driven from the land and into the cities as intensive agricultural techniques are employed to feed the growing numbers of people. This will cause the ranks of the internal proletariat to swell. There will also be broad discontent as wealth concentrates in the hands of the dominant minority:
From the time of troubles onward the population shifts within the state. There is a drift from the land as peasants are displaced in the interests of increased production...The surplus people of the countryside go to swell the ranks of Toynbee's "internal proletariat," already being bred in the cities. To these are added the inhabitants of conquered less-developed lands, driven in turn from their fields by civilized businessmen. Spent soldiers join them, their stipulated service over and their military usefulness gone.
So there always developed in the great cities of empires large and growing populations with very little to do except be house servants or formal slaves of that dominant minority which expanded to provide both the governors and the bureaucrats of the state. All could be given bread for a long time by improving the efficiency of agriculture, and by taking the new efficient method to the freshly conquered lands of the spreading empire, but each new advance of technology, or regiment, sends its own quota of exiles to the central city, there to join that breeding proletariat in, but not of, the culture of the times.  (pp. 100-102)
So far Toynbee's history goes as an ecologist would expect. Endless growing numbers both maintain poverty and give it such institutional form as slavery. The new technology which increases resources is never able to exceed the demands made upon it by ever more mouths, and its only real result is the closer herding of people, together with the growing bureaucracy needed to constrain them. Wars of conquest relieve matters, but only for a short time. When the victory has been truly great, then the numbers who can aspire and live in large niches is expanded for a while so that hope can flourish also. This is why conquering societies talk so much of freedom and liberty. But the increased living space must be filled quickly by the broad-niche "species" in society so that the hopes of succeeding generations must be curbed. Then the needs of an ever-growing proletariat must press upon even the large living space won by conquest. The only stability then is the short-lived one of people knowing their place. (p. 102)
The time of troubles is ultimately resolved by the absorption of the external proletariat into what Toynbee calls a universal state. The universal state is typically seen as the apotheosis of the civilization, but it is actually a sign of a civilization in its autumn years:
The disintegration of a civilization involves a time of troubles, such as a time of wars between the nations which are parts of the civilization. This time of troubles is followed by the establishment of a universal state, an empire. The existence of a universal state such as the Roman Empire is evidence that the civilization has broken down.
Colinvaux would see the establishment of a universal state as a logical response to the pressures of  crowding on the broader niches. The universal state is a way to create new, broad niche opportunities for the internal proletariat through colonization, trade, conquest and war. Indeed, we could say that all of these empires can be partially thought of as vast trading regimes with similar laws and institutions imposed from above by force to bring them about. Empires are necessary for vast trading regimes - The Roman Empire knitted together the Mediterranean region into one vast market; years later Genghis Khan's brutal rule would allow fruitful exchanges between Europe and China.

But once the universal state is established, even though the empire seems to be at its height, it is already decaying internally. The original culture has occupied distant lands; both the internal and external proletariats have expanded rapidly, and elites become increasingly isolated and take to warring among themselves and looting the underlying society, leading to a crisis of faith in institutions. Politicians become increasingly insular and self-serving, feathering their own nests while neglecting the common good. As people lose faith in the old order, they turn to new modes of life, often adopting new religions and cultural institutions in the process. The final sequence is:
Ultimately the universal state collapses and there follows an interregnum in which the internal proletariat creates a universal religion and the external proletariat becomes involved in a Volkerwanderung, a migration of peoples. 
The universal religion and its philosophy are usually borrowed from an alien civilization. The development of the new religion reflects an attempt by the people of the internal proletariat to escape the unbearable present by looking to the past, the future (utopias) and to other cultures for solutions. The religion eventually becomes the basis for the development of a new civilization. Religion amounts to a cultural glue which holds the civilization together. There is thus a close relationship between religions and civilizations.
Colinvaux describes it this way:
In the mechanisms of the times of trouble, which forge the internal proletariat and pave the way for the great captain and his armies, can be found some off the more revealing workings of ecological process. Not only do small crowded states war with each other, but capitalist business always emerges with all the social problems it brings in train. This is society trying to increase resources with improved technique, working to increase the size of the cake at home while its armies are fighting to increase it abroad...(p. 100)
But eventually, often after several generations of turmoil, a more able chieftain than the rest imposes his military will; the people gather thankfully behind the prospect of peace which he offers, yielding to him the instrument with which to establish an empire. The evolving civilization has culminated in a "universal state," and there may follow a protracted period, as under the Roman Empire, when an ordered society persists, the dominant minority remaining in charge, the mass constituting the "internal proletariat" consenting or collaborating in its bondage. But in the end the social order always decays. (p. 99)
The dominant minority is hard put to defend the boundaries of the empire against neighboring peoples and these evolve into a hostile alien force, the external proletariat. Finally, with the breakdown of order within, and the increasing hostility of the less disciplined but freer spirits from without, the empire crumbles leaving behind only traces of its culture and religion out of which those who have inherited its impoverished lands can begin again the process of invention and order.(p. 99)
Eventually, the means of war, colonies and trade expand to their greatest extent possible for the time. Caste systems are resisted by the restless and footloose masses clamoring for alternatives. The empire cannot accommodate them and disintegrates. Stagnation (stagflation) sets in. Population may finally start to decline, especially in crowded and filthy urban centers.

In the end, collapse is all but assured as the people inside the state turn on each other, leading to something that from outside looks like "moral decay." Social cohesion disintegrates and elite overproduction sews chaos:
But an empire always has an edge, at first diffuse and spreading, but later almost stationary. Its actual position is a function of contemporary technique in warfare, government and transport. Outside it live people whose kindred have been conquered, absorbed, oppressed, deported, or even slaughtered by soldiers of the civilized state. The survivors beyond the pale have learned something of the civilization's technique in fighting, and have also learned to lead mobile lives, so that they may avoid forays of the empire's soldiers...A whole new way of life, a new niche, has thus been developed in response to the pressure of the empire's people. Footloose, self-sufficient, partly nomadic, warlike; it is a way of life which often seems admirable to the imperial governors who confront it...Toynbee finds such people living on the boundaries of all the civilizations he studies, calls them the "external proletariat," admires them, and tells us that they have in common the writing of epic poetry. (pp. 102-103)
In Toynbee's account the war bands of the external proletariat are eventually to cut their way into the dying empire, hastening its fall...An external proletariat, forged from people who do not care to live in cities but who must run from a civilization's soldiers, is, with the knowledge of hindsight, a plausible outcome of the building of an empire...once the external proletariat has perfected the new way of life its own numbers will tend to rise, forcing it always to look for more resources both to safeguard children from want and to apportion among its younger sons. Trained to war by their way of life and equipped with some of the military techniques borrowed from the empire, their obvious expediency becomes armed raids across the borders. Their pressures on the empire must grow as their numbers rise, and an empire steadily weakened by the pressure of its own miserable masses finds itself ever more strongly attacked by armed young men from outside.(pp. 103-104)
Outside the gates of the civilization, a new culture is expanding, selectively adopting the successful methods of commerce and warfare developed by the dominant culture. The external proletariat are accustomed to living with less, so their birthrate is higher. They are more self-sufficient, not being able to rely upon the vast trading network forged by the dominant society's elites. As the dominant society's wealth concentrates in the hands of the sclerotic dominant majority, and the internal proletariat's numbers decline even as those of the external proletariat rise.

These trends culminate in a new civilization which arises out of the ashes of the old, either from outside it, or from within the crumbling society itself. New challenges are confronted, and a new creative minority emerges from the external proletariat. The cycle begins again.

This is similar to Ibn Khaldun's analysis of the thirteenth-century Maghreb, with nomadic peoples (the "external proletariat") who have been oppressed by the by the primary culture and having a greater sense of social solidarity and cohesion (asabiyah), eventually able to defeat their oppressors. Their greater sense of social cohesion allows them to conquer and assimilate the settled urbanized civilizations which have fallen into decay.

At the height of the empire, after a period of stability a collapse is all but assured in the twilight of a fading civilization:
The fading summer of each of Toynbee's civilizations passes with the muted mutter of dissension in thee big cities and ceaseless petty war at the frontier. But, at last, government crumbles at home, and war bands from outside swell over the disintegrating mass, Toynbee draws lessons of the spirit from these events, looking for the prime causes in the class war, the failing vigor of a privileged minority and the social injustice of commercial exploitation at home, contrasted with the ennobling experience of the external proletariat, which left it independent and tough.
Moral virtue then triumphs over moral decay and the lands of the empire are inherited by new peoples who proceed to build a new civilization on its ruins. No doubt these events do strange things to the human spirit, but their prime cause is not spiritual; it is an animal breeding strategy applied to human affairs. All of what Toynbee sees is predicted by the ecological hypothesis; all is the inevitable consequence of trying to provide a better life for ever increasing numbers of people. (p. 104)
Those were Toynbee's conclusions on the rise and fall of all the twenty-one major civilizations that he thought he could recognize from a long perusal of history. The creative minority, the successor dominant minority, the time of troubles which ushers in the succession, the internal proletariat, the emerging conqueror or great captain whom Toynbee sometimes calls a "saviour with a sword," the universal state that he builds, and the long autumn of order while the state endures as a stable thing with all knowing their place—are all events predicted by the ecological hypothesis.(pp. 99-100)
For example, in the case of ancient Rome, once expansion was no longer possible, declining social mobility, increasing poverty and despair, a loss of the tax base, a brutal police state, economic failure and stagnation, low growth, internecine warfare among elites, political corruption and sycophancy, futile, open-ended wars, and social decay followed. These are all symptomatic of a culture in decay. The culture can no longer rise to the challenges presented to it:
Yet, for all the peace and stability of the Antonine years, there was much about life in the empire which was far from admirable. There was a rigid caste system, with a social pyramid which grew ever steeper despite changes at the top as more provincial people were given Roman citizenship. The gap between rich and poor was desperately wide, and growing wider. Slaves could still be treated with a ferocity almost incomprehensible to people of our day. Growing masses of the urban poor lived without work, in disgusting tenements, on welfare payments of grain and entertained by horrible murders of prisoners and beasts in the public arenas built in every city for this necessary purpose.

Recession showed up as a chronic failure of tax revenue. Roman governors were always hard put to pay and equip their soldiers, and they had to meet even increasing expenses to keep the mass of the people in the city tenements from rebellion by giving them free food. In the last century they actually had to meet the expenses of a true police state, paying out a network of spies and informers...The emperors resorted to the Roman equivalent of printing money. They debased the coinage, mixing cheaper metal in gold and silver and declaring that the new coins had the same value as the old. Our modern governments push out paper and call it "wealth"; the Romans pushed out base metal and called it "wealth"; and the result was the same...Emperors tried wage and price controls, backing them up with brutal threats...but it did not work. They succeeded only in ruining the middle class. At the top of the social pyramid the depressed economy made government difficult. For the mass of people in the lower castes it made the chance for betterment hopeless. (pp. 156-158)
What was left to the Roman rulers was repression, and they learned to apply that solution very well. Indeed, repression was forced on them early, of course, as they enslaved their world with swords, javelins and terror. The old Roman Republic bequeathed to the Empire a state already based on slavery, repression and fear. Early reliance on social force actually helped bring about the very failure of technique which required that growing populations be held down by more force still, because a slave society of the massively poor is not likely to be technically ingenious—for why make a machine when there is cheap muscle to do the work? Romans came very close to real industry, needing, for instance, only the slightest advance to produce steam engines, but no Roman made the small tricks of invention necessary. The repressive social system stopped them by requiring slaves, and the social system itself had to be made more repressive still by default of invention. 
Social repression in the late empire tells us that the Roman possessions were crowded, as indeed they were. All the niche-space winnable by conquest, trade and slave-based industry had run out. If you were middle class or better, your children could only hope to live as well as you by elbowing someone else's children. This is real crowding in the ecological sense; all niche-spaces filled and the numbers still coming. Low population densities in parts of the Empire make no difference to this conclusion. (p. 166)
"Recession" is not really the right word to use for these failures of the Roman economy, however, because there was growth. The Romans seem never to have stopped building  roads and aqueducts and cities, nor did they fail to make weapons for armies which grew continually larger. But the growth was painfully slow. It was steady progress, not recession, even if slow enough to look like stagnation to us. But the slowness had the fatal consequence of never producing a surplus of capital to invest... (p. 158)
Then came strong-man rule. It was achieved by a series of military despots, men like Severus (that first emperor of African and possible Carthaginian descent), Diocletian and Constantine, who had a genius for the imposing of order by tyrannical force. They made a police state out of the empire. 
The smell of the police state comes down to us very clearly from the century preceding Constantine when Rome held its last sway in united government as one state under one ruler. Soldiers ruled; and feeding armies without payment became a first task of those living where the legions were stationed. Taxes increased and the bureaucracy became ever more complex. The social pyramid grew even steeper, developing into a caste system rigid perhaps beyond a real understanding. You risked your life if you spoke unconventional thoughts. Spies and informers were so prevalent that it was sometimes dangerous to talk in public at all. (p. 159)

Then came renewed troubles and the final, fatal wars. The Empire which had been built by force and together by force, was finally destroyed by force; real alien force brought in by armies from outside. The Empire from the time of its wealth, therefore, went through a stable century, wars of military adventurers, a triumph of despotism, and eventual subjugation by foreign foes. In outline, this history sounds very like the general predictions of the ecological hypothesis; in detail the fit seems even better. (pp. 159-160)
Sound familiar?

One element that is especially fascinating in both analyses is how rising numbers bring about a change in the spiritual outlook of a people. While some have speculated that increasing wealth was a cause of the emergence of moralizing religions, in Colinvaux's thesis it is the rising poverty caused by excess numbers which brought about the distinctive character of the Axial Age religions which gave people the coping skills to learn to live with increasing poverty, misery, and low class mobility.

Unlike the earlier dominant pantheons dedicated to the martial virtues of a confident, expanding, cohesive culture, these new religions all preached the same basic things: that life is full of suffering; the poor will always be with you; you should care for the sick, elderly and vulnerable; you should accept your lot in life with resignation and make the best of it; you will live in ease and comfort in the next life as opposed to this one; and so on. Such religions teach people how to be joyful in the face of despair.
In the end Toynbee notes that a world religion rises from the oppressed proletariat and persists long after the empire has fallen. He claims that all the major  religions of the world arose in this way; they started as religions of those subjugated in empires. Ours of the West was one, built out of conquered people desperate under the exactions of Roman military rule. Ecologists can easily understand the form these religions take. Much of the appeal of proletarian world religions lies in their counsel to the oppressed to endure. Nothing can be done; the poor are with us always; rely on your spiritual strength and make the best of things. For the crowded masses, to whom Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, and their like appealed, there was, no hope for an improvement in the standard of life. People knew in their bones that the lives of their children would be no better than their own lives. They did not know that the reason for this was the swelling numbers of people who used up new resources as fast as they could be created, but they truly knew the outcome all the same. So, by the device of a new religion, crowded, poor, citified people have always turned to the plastic properties of the human spirit, learning to be happy with very little. People learn to live in very narrow niches when religion teaches, and world religion is but another expression of learning the necessities of life by the process of taboo.
It is fascinating to note that India, long the most crowded of civilizations with an extreme caste system, developed some of the most sophisticated systems of spiritual development ever seen. Eastern mystery cults emerged in the decaying Roman empire, with one of them--Christianity--emerging as the dominant cultural factor in post-Roman society. Islam replaced disparate nomadic tribal gods and preached peaceful submission and care for the poor. Buddhism taught people to cope with falling living standards by turning inward. All of them forbade usury and preached care for the poor and downtrodden, such as the giving of alms and Zakat. All of them also depersonalize nature and exalt man. Perhaps the dominance of these religions has much to do with their ability to help people cope with the suffering caused by the effects of overcrowding in a world where the population is expanding geometrically. Is it any wonder we see the rise of religious fundamentalism in places like the Middle East and the United States as the economy decays and the hope for a better life is thwarted for the majority of people?

It's interesting to view the above procession against what we normally conceive of as collapse. Collapse is often seen as a fairly linear process, but the above shows that there will be a variety of responses by the elites of society, which will prolong the inevitable. There are many methods that a society has at its disposal to keep itself propped up and to keep conflict from boiling over, and these are fairly predictable. The nature of these responses are described by both Toynbee and Colinvaux. It is also important to note that collapse is assured when the empire is at its height, not on the way up.

Yet the measures - free trade, migration, wars, new technology, and so on, are seen as permanent solution to problems, when in reality they are only stopgap measures employed by desperate societies in their autumn years. The kick-the-can measures only mean that the problems will eventually reconstitute themselves down the line in a more intense crisis. Eventually, a reckoning is due, but the process toward that resolution is jagged and complex, and often hard to discern against the noise of daily life.

* For the record, they are: Egyptaic, Andean, Sinic, Minoan, Sumeric, Mayan, Yucatec & Mexic (fused to produce Central American), Hittite, Syriac, Babylonic, Iranic & Arabic (fused to produce Islamic), Far Eastern--Main Body, Far eastern--Japanese Offshoot, Indic, Hindu, Hellenic, Orthodox Christian--Main Body, Orthodox Christian--Russian Offshoot, and Western.


  1. Youse doin' the Lord's work, son.

    I don't know how you come up with the time to do so much writing, unless you're largely out of work like the rest of us.

    Visit the blintzes are great!

  2. Another fine work. What's missing from these authors' accounts is the existence of scribes whose function it is to insist that "this time it's different," "history doesn't repeat," and "it can't happen here." When Kennedy's book on the rise and fall of great powers came out in the 1990s, the avalanche of our betters from academe pointing out all the ways the US was avoiding/would avoid all the parallels was extremely depressing to those of us who saw that it wasn't different. Everything essentially predicted by the fate of past empires in Kennedy's work has played out right on schedule, with the third act just starting, but you're about the only one who's put it all together in a bite-size format. Congrats again.

  3. Great work as per usual.

    We're getting closer.

    No One Gets Out Alive

  4. related

    byzantine empire simplify collapse

  5. Anyone who denies aggression by poor against rich is a fool, unless he wants to juggle the traditional meanings of the terms rich and poor.

    Nomadic horsemen are one major group of aggressors of history--Huns, Mongols, Turks, Arabs, Aryans who invaded pre-Hindu Indian subcontinent--and these nomadic horsemen were poor by any reasonable definition while the empires they attacked were rich. True, the nomadic horsemen had egalitarian societies, and their poor had freedom and dignity, which are good things, but this is not the same as being rich.

    The other great group of aggressors are the seafarers: sea peoples who destroyed ancient Crete, Vikings, European colonialists, plus modern developed countries. In some cases, seafarers were poor and attacking richer empires for plunder. Other times, seafarers were rich compared to the areas they attacked. No general rule applies here.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.